GERARD HOWLIN: We overlook complexity of civil service at our peril

The complexity of civil-service structures is being dangerously underestimated by independent TDs, who have no experience of it, writes Gerard Howlin

THE centre of gravity of the next government will be outside the M50, and markedly less metrosexual or metropolitan than its predecessor. The demise of Labour is one reason. Based on policy papers from Fine Gael, for independent TDs, this government will address the regional imbalance that was partly responsible for upending its Let’s Keep the Recovery Going campaign. With the departure of two Green Party TDs, the remaining Dublin presence in talks with Fine Gael is limited to Maureen O’Sullivan, Katherine Zappone, Finian McGrath and Shane Ross. Geography, however, is only shorthand for changing priorities.

Enda Kenny and Fine Gael require support from the mainly rural TDs they are still talking to, before they engage with Fianna Fáil after next Wednesday. If a Fine Gael-led government, based on external association with Fianna Fáil, is viable, will Micheál Martin’s concerns bring a different emphasis to government priorities? His party’s gains notwithstanding, it remains much less urban than the country generally. What stands out in Fine Gael’s proposals is less their content than a glaring omission.

What is absent is any overarching vision for the country. Instead, there are policy offerings marked more by nostalgia for the noughties than for the future. There is little sense that what went before, in terms of spending or politics, was a false economy and fundamentally unsustainable. It seems to be a policy conversation based on getting back to where we were, not setting out how to do things differently. This cannot be laid at the door of the independent TDs alone. The sluice gates on public spending were left swinging open before the election. It is astonishing that yesterday’s economic discussion with Michael Noonan came after, but not before, all else. This is a process predicated on retrofitting economic fact to political necessity. After a campaign that never recovered from Enda Kenny’s bombast about ordinary people not understanding economic jargon and a louche offer to abolish USC, little has been learnt.

Time and money are both critical political ingredients in government. The complexity of civil-service structures is being perilously underestimated by independent TDs who have no experience of it. The civil service is gluey, centred in silos that have often radically different cultures, and much less homogenous than its common structure supposes. This fact of government is important in negotiations that presume that the setting up new departments for housing or rural affairs is an event in itself. There is good reason for setting up new departments to deliver on priorities, but they take considerable time to assemble and bed-down. Just how much time will the next government have? An 18-month to two-year time frame will hardly justify the cost of short-term disruption, as against potential longer-term gain.

A Department of Housing worthy of the name must include not only that function, but planning and local government, too. There is also a serious argument for including transport, since land-use policy cannot be influenced without it. However, that would be a colossal change. In creating additional departments, under a constitution that allows a cabinet of 15 only, existing ones must be extinguished. If transport is not to be included with housing, it could be merged with the energy and climate change functions of the existing Department of Communications, Energy, and Natural Resources. The inclusion of broadcasting, from that department, in a new Department of Culture and Community (this could include arts, sport, heritage and Gaeltacht) would be a credible attempt to deliver on the promise inherent in the centenary commemorations, which otherwise is destined to disappear. The creation of a second new department, for rural affairs, for example, would significantly challenge the system further.

These are complex legal changes, too, as well as administrative ones. Expenditure votes must be moved around. There has to be clarity about functional boundary lines, or turf wars will begin and will last for months. Personnel, IT, and cultural differences between departments have to be addressed and overcome. A government that cannot last a year cannot leverage benefit from those kinds of change.

An end-game, beginning after next Wednesday, will result either in new government or an election. A hope is still the yet-to-be-substantiated commitment to Dáil reform. Here, Fianna Fáil can demand what it asked for immediately after the election, namely a Programme for the Dáil, as distinct from just a Programme for Government. In a political situation where all sides are looking over their shoulder, one major reform, the introduction of a fixed-term Dáil, would be decisive.

Applying the UK model, a fixed, five-year Dáil term could only be dissolved in two ways. First, if a two-thirds majority of TDs demanded an election. Or, secondly, if a motion of no-confidence in the government were passed, and no new government won a vote of confidence within 14 days. A fixed-term Dáil would be possible under our constitution. It would transform the politics and possibilities of the 32nd Dáil. A Fine Gael-led government would be able to do little without support from Fianna Fáil, thus preserving that party’s influence. It would allow time for fundamental administrative and political changes to deliver. There are understandable concerns about matters heading towards the precipice. There were always going to, however. No agreement was ever likely, until, and unless, all concerned stood at its edge and looked out over it. There are very real choices to be made, which do not involve an improbable grand coalition or an unwanted election. Some of them make sense, given time.


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